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18 April 2007

A Midsummer Night's Dream at NCSC

Shakespeare came alive for me at North Carolina Stage Company. I have often doubted my ability to understand his dialogue, and I have often questioned the wisdom of making his plays "relevant" to modern times. Not any more.
How did this cast capture my attention and win me over? After being delightfully entertained for 2 hours I'm still not sure. Walking into the empty theatre, I could see the stage was set with simple props, yet I was drawn to them, knowing they would soon be part of a story.
The ensemble of eight actors entered and went to work, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say they came to play. With each taking on multiple roles, they worked together so well that they made it look easy and fun. The performance, in spite of much complicated movement and dialogue, was polished and smooth from start to finish.
I was intrigued that the actors made almost all costume changes on stage as well as doing all the set changes themselves. I felt that there was a message there for me. I believe the message said, "We are the actors. We are about to do our part. You are the audience. Your job is to follow our lead and allow your imagination to take you on an adventure."
What an adventure it was! We laughed our way through comedy, poetry, drama, and slapstick. This powerful group of professional actors was sharp, quick, and on target all night long.
It is true that I missed some of the words. But the play was so creatively directed and the actors so engaging in their art, that it did not matter. If Shakespeare could see his play and the modern use of scooters, a skateboard, and cell phones, he might raise an eyebrow or two. His work though, is alive and well at North Carolina Stage Company.

--Robert Arthur

16 April 2007

Raindrop Waltz

In the rather hit or miss world of Asheville theater, I find it impressive that 35 Below manages to consistently produce what I think is really good theater. I believe it's a testament to the vision of the ACT staff, and to Jenny Bunn in particular, who pick out these often unheard of, and sometimes risky plays, and produces them with the same amount of, or sometimes more, professionalism as any show ACT does. Perhaps I'm a little biased because I work on so many shows at 35 Below, but I think their shows are some of the best theater in town.
One show I did not work on in any capacity was their recent production of The Raindrop Waltz, and so I think I can say this with little prejudice, it is another truly great show.
The script is well written and very moving. It also struck a chord with me because it's about the area around WNC, where I grew up, and I love seeing places and characters that seem familiar to me. It gives me a sense of pride to be able to identify in some way with these people. It's also not about Southern stereotypes, but about real people who live in a specific culture.
It is filled with many authentic and nuanced performances from the entire cast, but especially notable are the performances by Cory Boughton, Sally Cheney, and Mike Vaniman. Broughton is the narrator and the glue of the story. His character, Jody Lee, is more a storyteller than anything else, and his job is to assemble the poignant pieces of his family's story together for us. Broughton speaks to the audience with such comfort that it almost seems as it is truly his story. The great thing about Broughton's performance is that it's big enough to convey his inner feelings, but subtle enough to seem authentic.
Sally Cheney plays the slowly deteriorating matriarch of this broken family. She endues her performance with such a familiarity and sweetness, that even when she talks bad about her own family, we still can't get upset with her. Sally gives herself over so completely to her character, Agnes Tester, that it's like watching one's own parents or grandparents out there. In fact I saw a lot of things in her that I also recognized in my own grandmother.
Finally Mike Vaniman gives a compact but powerful performance as Manard Potts, a town derelict who reveals to Jody Lee, and us, the events of one tragic day that finally broke this already fragile family. It is a captivating part, and Vaniman plays it with a nice mixture of wild abandon, and sage wisdom.
Don't however let this disparage the merits of the rest of the cast. This is a very talented ensemble. Every actor seemed in the moment, and they made every character believable.
The set is probably one of the most ambitious sets I've seen in 35 Below. It consists of a very authentic looking front porch flanked by two pieces of scrim on either side which are painted to represent to nearby mountains. There is a nice stump on one side of the playing area, and a small bench on the other. The space was used very efficiently and the lighting helped to differentiate areas and time well.
I feel though that it was a bit cramped in 35 Below however. The space felt like it limited the actors movements a bit, and didn't allow them to be as free in their characterizations as they could have been. Also the seating arrangement chosen for this show is not my favorite. When things are set "Proscenium" style at 35 Below sight lines become a big problem, as was the case in some parts of this show. Many of the seated moments and things of the floor were blocked. It's hard to say what space would have been right for this show. While things felt a bit cramped in 35 Below, it gave the show a good intimacy. On the other hand I fear the mainstage would have been too big for this production and much of the actors very nuanced performances would have been lost. Probably a stage about the size of NCStage's would have fit the play well.
The only other critique I have is the use of the scrim. It is used rather effectively for several flashback scenes in the second half, but I wish the effect would have been introduced sooner in the first act. The first use of the scrim didn't come until the second act and when it first happened it was a bit jarring. I think there were several moments in the first act that might have been appropriate places to employ the scrim effect, and would have allowed us to get accustomed to the effect, keeping us in the scene more. Maybe it's just the designer coming out in me, but I knew it was going to be used sometime and was sitting there waiting for it to happen.
This however doesn't take away from the fact that 35 Below's production of The Raindrop Waltz is very well done, with many great performances, and a real engaging script. I think it's definitely theater worth seeing.

--Jason Williams

Wish I Had A Sylvia Plath

Elisabeth Gray is a wonderful actor. She is an engaging and even magnetic performer, and when she is actually allowed to perform, Edward Anthony’s Wish I Had A Sylvia Plath is a very compelling and moving play. Unfortunately, Ms Gray is almost constantly upstaged by the technical elements of the production, and thus is unable to salvage through her acting alone a very interesting play that is bogged down in technical trickery.

The play explores the suicide of Sylvia Plath through the eyes of Esther Greenwood, named after the protagonist of Plath’s The Bell Jar, thus allowing both a personal connection and a certain amount of “colorful revisionism” in regards to the poet herself, and this is a good thing. The play begins and ends with her head in the oven, and through conversations with the oven (voiced in delightful “wa-wa” noises by Ms. Gray, and accompanying flashes of light by the oven), a cooking show performed for the audience called “Better Tomes and Gardens” (which title quickly became more confusing than funny, as it was continually reintroduced), and periodic lapses into memory provided by a projector screen, the audience is allowed to see the final hazy reflections of Esther Greenwood on what has driven her to this oven, especially focusing on her adulterous husband Ned Pewes.

As a concept, this works very well, but the structure relied too heavily on technical tricks, and not enough on theatrical imagination.

Although quite strong overall, part of the blame lies in the writing: the production script has evolved significantly from the playwright’s first editions, and although the script remains smart, witty, funny, and at times mildly provocative, at least one fundamental change was made that greatly lessens the impact of the play over all. In earlier versions, the play was imaginatively and evocatively structured after the four phases of Hypoxia, the condition that develops as one dies of gas inhalation. This allowed the gradual devolution from Stage one (little effect except on eyesight; a gradual dimming of the world) to an increase in circulation, respiration, and blood pressure, to the third stage which includes major disturbances including hallucinations, and finally to the fourth, fatal stage. While the new script is probably tighter overall and certainly flows better in places, the abandoning of this structure leaves the audience with less to discover, less to see unfold. Rather, we seem to start in phase three and simply exist there for an hour and a half, while Esther Greenwood explains over and over that her parents, but mostly her adulterous husband have driven her to suicide.

Of the two major conceits she uses to make that point (the cooking show and the projected video) the former is most effective. There is something delightfully mid-century Americana about the over the top cooking show featuring Seven Liar Lasagna and Black Tar Brain SoufflĂ©. It accents the desperate struggle for some kind of “normalcy” in a life that is falling apart at the seams, and helps provide a through-line for the audience. I did find myself growing slightly tired of the same two recipes, but overall the concept works.

The video projection, however, is probably the key to the ultimate collapse of what could have been a great play. Really almost nothing about it worked, theatrically speaking. Certainly, it turned on when it was supposed to, you could see it from all of the audience, etc, but despite these marginal technical successes, it stifled the creativity of the production and distracted from the really interesting thing about the piece—the performer. For one thing, the film was shot in a jerky, flat, and somewhat washed out style that made it look amateurish and dull. It may have been meant to evoke the feel of an early silent film, with its jerky cuts and sometimes unsteady camera, but even if so, it raised another question: why evoke an early 20th century period, if the play was presumably taking place at mid-century? Of course, I’m only guessing that because of the time-line of Sylvia Plath’s life, and the tenor of Ms Gray’s performance, but the costumes on the video looked only vaguely evocative of some earlier time—perhaps the 60’s—the music seemed mostly drawn form the 40’s (and, oddly, did not include the Ryan Adams song after which the play is named), and the houses featured look decidedly 70’s. (Ms Gray’s electric red dress was evocative of the 50’s in that peculiar way only certain 80’s fashions can be
, an issue not wholly related to the video, but distracting nonetheless.) Ms Gray was also unable to quite sync her voices (she provided the voices for the mouthing actors on the screen) with those being projected, which may have also been intentional, but I could not see what purpose it served, aside from being distracting, an making me wonder why these sequences were not more rehearsed. Overall, I was surprised that a video that featured so prominently in the play would not be more polished and professionally produced.

The real failure of the video, however, is that is was simply not interesting theatrically. The strength of any one-person play is always the performer, as much as the material, and Elisabeth Gray seems quite up to the challenge, but she was never quite allowed the opportunity to show it. Her connection with the audience kept being interrupted by the intrusion of the video, which physically dwarfed her and forced her to upstage herself terribly whenever she talked to the screen. Her natural public affinity was thus continually compromised by her reliance on the screen to tell the story for her, and by her physical disconnect from the audience whenever the device was employed. I recognize that the playwright was very concerned that none of the characters in the story be neglected or left out, especially Ned Pewes, and I’m sure the producers were interested in finding new and clever ways of doing that, but I believe that the most effective tool at their disposal was their actor. My point was proved by about 20 seconds of the play in which Esther spoke in her mother’s voice but did not do so while looking at the screen (which was not on), and replied in her own voice. This dialogue was brief, Esther’s only word being a repeated “no,” but the moment was possibly the most moving of the play, and largely because of the human struggle that was suddenly seen in this actor finally being given the chance to expose herself to the theatrical magic of her own strengths, and her character’s deep needs, worries, and flaws. It was a lovely, but frustratingly singular moment.

Not everything about the video was awful, and a few moments were quite nice and even theatrical, such as seeing Esther on-screen going through the same physical motions as Esther on-stage, and seeing only in the video that she is placing towels under the doors so as not to accidentally gas her children. The final moment of the play, with Esther on-stage placing her head in the oven while behind her Esther on-screen is placing her head on her pillow was a brief and beautiful glimpse into the possibilities of the projection screen, if had had been used more theatrically and less literally all along.

Instead, however, the final moments in the theatre, when the play is clearly over, are dominated again by the video, which intrudes dully: In lieu of a curtain call, the credits (the same credits that we have in our programs, mind you) are scrolled across the screen movie style, while Esther and her daughter wave at the camera and traipse through a meadow. It’s not that the idea is all bad—I think there can be great value in curtain calls that challenge audience perceptions in some way- but in this case, it was distracting and annoying. Perhaps if the video usage had been more creative and integral all along, this ending would have seemed appropriate, but I suspect that many in the audience felt as I did: that we did not come to see a video, and did not want to applaud to a video. Rather, we came to see a performer, who created a world with her words and made us joyful at the magical possibilities of human interaction to create much more than what we see in front of us, and we wanted to applaud the person, the actor, who in that moment had created this world for us. Ms Gray never appeared, which was certainly a choice to make the audience feel something, but probably not what this audience member felt: cheated—cheated out of the chance to thank the performer. The notion that a video could stand in for real human connection seemed rather rude and presumptuous.

It that way, though, it was the perfect conclusion to a play in which it had, sadly, been allowed to do just that.

--Willie Repoley